The glawackus had returned.
The strange, half-cat, half-dog creature with a bit of bear thrown into the ungodly mix was prowling the woods of Essex, thirsty for blood. First spotted in the Connecticut wilderness decades earlier, rumors and apparent sightings had persisted over the years in Connecticut and beyond. But this was different.
On Sept. 15, 1966, the New Era, a weekly newspaper out of Deep River, described how several people, including First Selectman Escott MacWhinney, saw the beast now dubbed the “glowackus” with an “o” instead of an “a.” The newspaper even ran a blurry photo.
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“By the end of the day, the population of Essex was in a panic,” Stephen Gencarella writes inSpooky Trails and Tall Tales Connecticut. Gencarella, a Connecticut resident and professor of folklore studies at the University of Massachusetts, continues, “Schoolchildren were frightened; concerned teachers, parents, and citizens lit up the switchboard at the station and the town hall; and organized parties of terrified hunters were out in the woods with guns loaded.”
The first sightings of the glawackus occurred around January 1939 in the woods and fields of Glastonbury. That winter, pets and livestock turned up mutilated. There were large tracks in the snow. Some residents reported hearing a terrifying, unearthly scream. Others saw a strange-looking creature, but descriptions of it varied. There was talk that it might be a mountain lion, a large bobcat or some other predator.
Then the media circus began.
While some local newspaper accounts were straightforward in their coverage of the mysterious beast, the Hartford Courant got spirited in its descriptions. A Jan. 15 story about a hunt for the creature dubbed it the Glastonbury “What-is-it” and began with a poem:
Say did the fearless hunters / Pick up the beastie’s spoor / While trekking through the jungles / With steps alert and sure?
Three days later, on Jan. 18, Courant editor Francis King ran the infamous headline “Guffaws of Glastonbury Glawackus Greet Gloomy Gang of Gunners.” The glawackus name was a combination of “Glastonbury” and “wacky,” with a Latin “us” ending to make it sound more scientific.
With its new name, the glawackus found fresh popularity and was written about in outlets across the country.
The missing animals in Glastonbury were no hoax. At least two dogs were killed, more were injured, and livestock disappeared. Tourists flocked to town to try to glimpse the beast, and there were glawackus dances and glawackus-themed competitions of various kinds. Within a few months, hoopla surrounding the beast died down. According to some reports, the source of attacks on town animals had been an emaciated brown dog that was ultimately captured in a bear trap and killed.
But the legend of the glawackus did not die a dog’s death.
By spring it was on the move again. On April 1, the Springfield Republican ran the headline, “Intrepid Explorers to Track Down Horrifying Ectoplasmic Glawackus.” The first hunt took place at the Indian Oven Cave, in Millerton, New York, just over Connecticut’s western border. The April 1 publication should have been a tip-off that something wasn’t right, but coverage of the “intrepid explorers” and their hunts over the next few weeks appeared in newspapers throughout New England and beyond. As part of the hunt, a woman was lowered into the cave to bait the glawackus (King Kong was released six years earlier and many members of society apparently still believed that unusual animals were drawn to beautiful women.)
The organizers of the hunts were Clay Perry, a pioneering cave explorer credited with coining the term “spelunker,” and Roger Johnson, a fellow spelunking enthusiast who knew a thing or two about mythmaking as the son of Clifton Johnson, a renowned New England folklorist. Gencarella writes, “the widespread appeal of the glawackus was just what the two men needed to inspire interest in caving.” Their hunts concluded on April 23 when they supposedly cornered and killed the glawackus at the Bashful Lady Cave in Salisbury. Later the men would freely admit they had staged the whole thing. However, their efforts provided exposure for the new sport of caving and solidified a connection between the glawackus and spelunking that remains active today, with many caving groups using various artists’ renderings of the creature as their mascots.
But no account of the by-turns-terrifying and comical beast raised more panic than that 1960s Essex sighting. To calm a horror-stricken public, the rightly skeptical local police had to intervene. They tracked the story to Alfred Knapp, a wealthy metallurgist who owned 200 acres of woodlands in the area and ran a charitable organization for children to experience camping. He was known for telling ghost stories at the camp and had convinced MacWhinney, Essex’s first selectman, to go along with the ruse. Knapp issued a half-hearted apology in the New Era the next week. Decades later it remains a hoax for the ages, and another reminder to read all news with a critical eye. Though Knapp’s mea culpa ran in September, this is especially true on the first day of the month of April.